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Kelty (2008) Two Bits, Chapter 4

July 25, 2009

Kelty, C. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Chapter 4. Sharing Source Code

118 There would be no Free Software (FS) w/o shared source code

118 Source code ‘both an expressive medium, like writing or speech, and a tool that performs concrete actions’

118 Many FS geeks say “information wants to be free”. Kelty begs to differ: “information makes people want freedom” because sharing gives rise to a specific moral & technical order

119 Geeks have naturalised sharing norms over last 30 years; this is the story of the UNIX operating system, ‘a monstrous academic-corporate hybrid, an experiment in portability and sharing’ well known to geeks but not to rest of the world.

119 Spread via computer sci students around globe; 120 UNIX kinda ‘primal recursive public’

120 UNIX unified as concept but devilishly entangled with all its ports and forks

120 UNIX came to be paradigm not only of operating systems but of networked computers in gral; widely seen by geeks as philosophy that can help answer question: ‘how shall we live, among a new world of machines, software, and networks?’

121- Before Source

121 late 1950s, higher-level languages appear: translation higher to lower level languages. Irony about computers: although it has general programmability, from 1950s hardware created was idiosyncratic, you programmed for a specific machine and had to rewrite for another. [see Georgina Born 1990s work on AI geeks in Paris].

123 This programming Babel led for search for standardized programming languages in early 60s: Algol, FORTRAN, COBOL, etc. This is problem of portability: how to move software across machines.

124 In 1968 IBM decided to unbundle software and hardware; until them had always been sold together. Portable source code became thinkable. But still restricted portability: not to rivals’ machines.

125 So the success of UNIX all the more astonishing, became the epitome of an operating system. 126 Unique commercial-academic hybrid 127, allowed it to attain conceptual integrity beloved by scholars and designers. “It worked”.

128 Distributing UNIX source code became an engrained practice; this encouraged users ‘to maintain it, extend it, document it’. Ported to huge number of machines throghout 1970s.

129 UNIX became essential computer-science teaching cos working operating system that came with source code and simple, could learn in one or two semesters.

129 Unlike now, in 70s still needed material support of magnetic tape to disseminate software.

130 Bell Labs lawyers struggled with instability of UNIX; technical quality improved with all the fixes, updates, new tools but muddied the legal status; aim was to give one license for one piece of software.

131 Not clear whether AT&T owned the fixes

131 Struggle not between evil capitalists and rebels but between two ways of seeking to stabilise UNIX [see ANT literature on stabilisation; see also Sperber 1996 on stability and lability of different cultural representations].

131 Lots of modifications but concept of UNIX remained highly stable.

132 More on pedagogical dimension of UNIX: ‘As it was installed and improved, it was taught and learned’. So it achieved pedagogical stability more than as a legal entity or corpus of source code. By contrast, Windows much more widespread but ‘its integrity is predominantly legal, not technical or pedagogical’. Pedagogically, ‘Windows is to fish as UNIX is to fishing lessons’.

133 Lions’ UNIX textbook incredibly important [on software textbooks and the muddles of software pedagogy, see Born 1997]. UNIX ported not only to machines, but also ‘to the minds of young researchers and student programmers’.

134 Importantly, students learning UNIX basics from n-th generation photocopy of Lions’ texbook were learning at same time about AT&T’s efforts to enforce its legal distribution.

134 Lions’ Commentary widely read down the generations, rare form of ‘literary criticism’ still admired by geeks today, contributing to the making of a recursive public around a body of source code in both implemented and textual (photocopied) form, 135 a public that saw itself as “breaking the law” [on software and frequent lack of documentation, see Born 1997].  

135 So UNIXphile geeks connected not just technically, but also socially and legally [and affectively?].

135 To avoid legal issues, the Amsterdam academic and geek Tanenbaum created Minix, with no AT&T source code in it. As frequently used for teaching in 1980s as Lions’ source code in 70s. 136 Exemplified UNIX’s conceptual integrity; stood for all operating systems. Yet copyright controlled by the publishers, Prentice Hall.

136 Young Linus Torvalds forked Minix in 1991-2 to expand it and take advantage of new hardware being made in 90s. Both in common: commitment to visible source-code  & sharing.

138 BSD forked from UNIX, new functionalities, esp. code permitting computers to connect to Arpanet via TCP/IP protocols.

140 UNIX can take on many different forms, resulting from conflicting notions of sharing and divergent technical and moral imaginations.

141 TCP/IP protocols went pandemic: 98% of comp sci depts in USA incorporated them into their UNIX systems and instantly gained access to Arpanet.

141- Conclusion

UNIX operating system not just technical feat: making of set of norms for sharing source code in strange ecology: mix of academic and commercial, networked, global.

141 Three ways of sharing UNIX source code: porting, teaching, forking. [sub-practices?]

142 Thorny issues raised about standardisation, audit and control, legitimacy – still apply not just to UNIX but to whole Internet and its “open” protocols.

142 The practice of FS code sharing today not because of individual technical or marketing genius, but because ‘sharing produces its own kind of order: operating systems and social systems’. Geeks like to speak about “UNIX philosophy” cos it’s not just an operating system, it entails those complex inter-field organisational bonds as well.

Chapter 3

Chapter 5

Preface & Introduction


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